Scapegoat Theory: The Role of Prejudice

When blame is arbitrarily placed on a group, social psychology refers to this as the scapegoat theory or scapegoating. Throughout history, there have been examples of prejudice that has caused harm to targeted groups.  Scapegoating serves to remove the blame from oneself or society in general and place it on a more acceptable target in the person or group’s mind. This type of psychological phenomenon often arises when people experience negative emotions and are forced to confront their role in the outcome.

The effects of scapegoating can have lasting impacts on the mental health and physical well-being of the targeted group and the targeting group as well. This article will explore the theory and the effects that it has on people on either side of the exchange.

Origins of Scapegoat Theory

The definition of scapegoat is a person or group upon whom blame is placed, often without them having any actual effect on the outcome of a situation. The term scapegoat is believed to have come from the Hebrew practice of sacrifice of an animal as atonement for the sins of the people, according to the Oxford University Press. Yet the actual term was likely mistranslated by a protestant scholar.

The word scapegoat has become fairly commonplace and is used in other aspects of life, but it is most commonly studied in social psychology. It was first introduced in a social context by Emile Durkheim. The larger theory of why this type of conflict exists is called Intergroup Conflict Scapegoating, and it is a theory that seeks to understand the social phenomenon of particular group members blaming another for their problems. This is similar to Sigmund Freud’s notions of displacement, which is the tendency to place blame on another for one’s actions or status.

Scapegoat Theory Explained

The theory suggests that much prejudice is rooted in one group blaming another for all the sins or harm that they encounter. This displaced aggression is most frequently a one-on-one phenomenon; however, it can exist in a group-on-one form, a one-on-group manner, or a group-on-group target. It is rooted in one’s tendency to attribute one’s personal problems or illicit desires to the actions of another group.

On a small scale, this can contribute to minor misbehavior toward the groups in question. However, at extreme levels, the actions can lead to the destruction of unacceptable targets which causes perceived improvement for the more powerful side.

The theory of intergroup scapegoating suggests that it relies heavily on the relative deprivation of one group over another. Relative deprivation is the idea that one will be content with their station until they find out that another person at a similar status receives more, thus depriving them of more of the overall whole.

These feelings are unacceptable, yet they often serve as defense mechanisms for the group and can potentially help other researchers identify the real threat to the group. If the greater threat can be identified and addressed, then the group may be able to avoid scapegoating another before true and irreparable damage is done.

The Roles in the Theory

When looking at scapegoat theory, there are two major roles at work, the majority groups that blame the scapegoated group for their issues.

Majority Group

The first group is the actor in scapegoat theory. This group blames others for their issues and sees their existence as a part of the problem. The scapegoat is blamed for illegitimate reasons, such as financial losses or being the reason political problems exist, yet the undesired situation and the true cause of their problems are blamed on less powerful ones.

Scapegoated Group

The second side of the theory is the scapegoated group. This is the one upon whom the blame is placed, and it is often for unreasonable characteristics, such as being perceived as more commercially successful or based on national origin.

Examples of Scapegoat Theory

There are several instances in history and daily life where one group or person blames other groups or people for their problems based only on a minor detail or attribute. These examples can help demonstrate the effect that scapegoating can have on a person and just how one person may begin to displace their anger on another.

The Holocaust

Another example of scapegoat theory is Adolf Hitler and Germany’s treatment of the Jewish people before, during, and after World War II. In the 1930s, much of the world was struggling to regain stability after the Great Depression and the Great Recession happened around the world. The average German citizen was experiencing prolonged economic insecurity, facing increasingly scarce jobs, and trying to survive throughout the process of a political shift in the country.

In the face of this instability, Hitler and his army encouraged the theory throughout the country that it was the fault of anyone whom they deemed less than, particularly the Jewish people. They created a false narrative that other people were more stable and making more money than the German citizens, and many people turned away as this scapegoating and prejudice reached a horrific conclusion with the Holocaust.

Sport Teams

A less horrific example of this theory is the way that fans of a sports team may blame the fans or players from another for a loss or issue with their team. This example will often just result in harsh words or minor scuffles, yet the prejudice that grows may encourage a more harmful process of expressing this prejudice.

Child as Scapegoat

A common example of scapegoat theory is actually within studies of a child’s development. In a healthy family, the children are cared for equally and supported by their parents as they grow up. However, in an unhealthy family, the parents may end up harming the children by making them a scapegoat and blaming them for other personal struggles. This can have immense adverse effects on the child’s mental health. This can be one-on-one, group-on-one, or group-on-group scapegoating.

The Effects 

Scapegoating can have serious adverse effects on the people that are targeted and this harm can extend beyond the original target and can impact others around the country or world. The unacceptable feelings that one person may feel toward another can increase violence toward that person and encourage others to join in.

Thinking back to the example of the Holocaust, the effects had a massive impact on the Jewish people and this prejudice and harm has continued to be a malevolent force within the world today. The theory and ideas perpetrated by the German army have made a resurgence in recent years, and the harm that the theory caused during World War II is still causing damage and violence toward groups that are deemed less than by other groups. This form of scapegoating has dangerous implications if it continues to grow.


Scapegoat theory also has implications for alternative dispute resolution. When one party in a mediation or arbitration makes the other a scapegoat, they will be unable to see the true cause of the harm or perceived harm that they have suffered, which can impact their ability to resolve the dispute. If the other person is the only cause of the conflict in their mind, they cannot accept that they may need to take some responsibility for where they are at.

Scapegoat theory helps understand the sociological impact of assigning blame. It can help us identify the issue when it arises and encourage the people participating in the scapegoating to see there is no correlation between the people being blamed and the issues that they are facing. Understanding how prejudice impacts life and dispute resolution can help us make the best decisions for our lives.

To learn more about the scapegoat theory, general psychology, and alternative dispute resolution, contact ADR Times to learn more!

Emily Holland
Latest posts by Emily Holland (see all)
error: ADR Times content is protected.